Commutes Get Worse, Coverage Gets Better

Growing morning commutes and earlier newscasts have given traffic reporting a new importance, not only on-air. And as traffic information from alternative sources grows, TV stations are working to remain the top destination for traffic news. They are developing new ways of tracking traffic in real time and are also delivering the information to commuters through email, social media and mobile devices. This is the third of four articles that will appear this week and that collectively constitute a TVNewsCheck Special Report on Traffic Reporting.

On the best of days, Seattle traffic can be tough.  But on the gloomy morning of Oct. 24, commuters braced themselves for a potential traffic nightmare — Viadoom, the hyperbolic media was calling it.

The city’s Alaskan Way Viaduct — an aging north-south highway running through downtown — was closing for seven straight days so that sections could be torn down as part of a multi-year project to build an underground tunnel.

But the beleaguered drivers got a lot of help from the city’s TV stations (DMA 12), which provided commuters all-day coverage of the traffic tie-ups, alternate traffic routing maps online and live coverage via helicopter.

“This construction project really put the Seattle transportation system to the test,” says Mark Ginther, executive news director at Belo’s KING. “This shutdown cut a major artery for the community and was our first look at our traffic future with major changes planned. We needed to mobilize our entire station to provide timely, useful information.”

KING was ready for Viadoom. To meet the demand for traffic news, for the past two years, it has been beefing up its traffic reporting capability, hiring a dedicated traffic reporter, developing a customizable mobile traffic app and purchasing new traffic monitoring and graphics equipment. It has also learned to leverage social media sites Twitter and Facebook to interact with commuters on the road.

And KING’s growing focus on traffic is not unique or surprising.


Traffic continues to be a top-three content area for morning newscasts, and the appetite for it is only growing, says Jerry Gumbert, president and CEO of broadcast consulting group Audience Research & Development.

“The want and desire for traffic information has never been as high as it is today,” Gumbert says.  “We are now living the news in real time.  That is never more true than in traffic and in severe weather situations.”

A Pew Research Center study released in September found that twice as many people say that rely most on local TV for traffic news (19%) than they do either newspapers (8%) or the Internet (9%). However, local TV’s lead narrows to a near tie among 18-39 year olds with 12% saying they rely most on local TV and 11% choosing the Internet.

As traffic information from alternative sources grows, TV stations are working to remain the top destination for traffic news. They are developing new ways of tracking traffic in real time and delivering the information to commuters through email, social media and mobile devices.

And during newscasts, stations are trying out new ways of telling the traffic story using new data-gathering technology and graphics from outside vendors.  In some cases, the vendors are even providing the on-air talent. TVNewsCheck will report on some of the leading vendors tomorrow.

One way KING is trying to differentiate itself from its competitors is by customizing its on-air traffic graphics package to show the “Jam Factor” on various routes, ranking the traffic tie-ups on a 1-10 scale.

Hearst Television’s WESH Orlando, Fla. (DMA 19), has an always-on ticker during its morning newscast, running even during commercials.  It recently reformatted the ticker, making it just for weather and traffic information, catering to the “give it to me now” demand from viewers, according to station news director Bob Longo.

In Los Angeles (DMA 2) — legendary for its highway troubles — NBC’s KNBC over the past six months has aggressively used Twitter to deliver traffic information to its viewers.

Traffic reporter Sean Murphy tweeted some 4,000 times in the past six months, and his Twitter account is growing between 12% and 20% a week, says News Director Keith Esparros. Murphy spends about the same amount of time on social media as he does on his broadcasts.

Murphy Tweets every traffic report, accident and SigAlert (a traffic alerting system provided by the state’s Department of Transportation), and even responds individually to Tweets asking for specific traffic information and suggesting alternate routes.

“It’s just another way to build that connection between us and our viewers,” says Esparros. “We need to get that information to them in whatever way is convenient at the moment. If you’re not there when they need you and in the method they need at the time, they’ll just go find someone else.”

Seattle’s KING released a customizable mobile traffic app a few months ago that lets consumers get information on their route through their smartphones. “It’s really important that we remain innovative and nimble,” Ginther says.

Belo’s WFAA Dallas and KABC Los Angeles are working with Waze, a social media traffic app that guides commuters based on real-time traffic data. WFAA is promoting the free Waze app as the “Carmageddon Resistance DFW.”

WESH Orlando has launched an email alert, allowing viewers to get news sent straight to their phones. About 70,000 people are signed up for the service, says News Director Bob Longo. “The issue with a traffic app is you have to go looking for it.  The beauty of a Tweet or station [email] alert … is that it’s there for you.  You don’t have to go looking for it.”

Gannett’s WXIA Atlanta (DMA 9) is also providing traffic information through every platform possible — customized email alerts, social media, its website and on-air, says WXIA’s Ellen Crook, VP of news.

“People have told us that their commute in the morning is one of the things that bothers them the most and ruins their day,” she says.  “Like anything, the TV is not the only way that they can get that information.”

Interactive online maps are another helpful tool many stations are deploying to help commuters plot their routes and get drive times.  When they click into the WTSP and WFAA sites, they are invited to sign up for mobile phone alerts.

In Atlanta — named the No. 1 worst city for commuters by Forbes — Gannett’s WXIA is putting a unique twist on its coverage through its “Commuter Dude” reporter, John Gerard.

Gerard’s mission is to resolve commuter problems — everything from bushes at intersections that need to be trimmed to lights that need to be synched.  He does segments on-air, and then posts on WXIA’s website. It features a form for commuters to fill out with their traffic problems.

“It’s taken off like wildfire,” says Crook. Gerard receives more email than any other employee at the station.

Gannett’s WTSP Tampa, Fla. (DMA 14), also hired a full-time traffic reporter — Lorena Robago — a couple months ago. News Director Peter Roghaar says Robago not only covers the daily commute, but also serves as a commuter advocate to resolve traffic problems.

For example, Roghaar says she may get sent out to cover a story on a major pothole that’s causing traffic problems, and then investigate why the city is slow to respond.

Prior to Robago joining the station, WTSP contracted with NAVTEQ to provide on-air talent.  The station decided it would be a “smart move” to hire its own reporter and establish itself as being as “the champion of the viewer,” Roghaar says.

When Robago is not on-air, she’s actively providing traffic information via Facebook and Twitter, Roghaar adds. “Social media has become a big component of traffic coverage.”

Broadcasters are also experimenting with ways of monetizing their traffic extras. “How stations attack it in terms of trying to make incremental dollars will vary pretty widely,” says Laura Clark, SVP at Frank Magid Associates. It’s still most important to keep the broadcast ratings up, she says.

In the past few years, stations have been putting a stronger emphasis on their morning newscasts, says Clark.  The greater emphasis on traffic goes hand-in-hand.

Some stations  like Allbritton’s WJLA Washington (DMA 8), sell the branding of their traffic report to a single advertiser.  The sponsor’s brand is prominently incorporated into the on-air graphics.

That sponsorship generates a premium for stations, says AR&D’s Gumbert. “It [traffic] is an extremely important thing for consumers and a significant revenue opportunity for stations.”

Other stations are still offering advertising packages that incorporate a presence across the various platforms. “The key competitive advantage for stations is being local,” says Clark. TV stations can provide “the local understanding and give some perspective,” she says, something Google and other new traffic services cannot.


Read the other stories in this Special Report on Traffic Reporting here.

Comments (1)

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Jeffrey Schmitt says:

November 10, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Everyone here should check out Tango Traffic in Philadelphia: http://www.tangotraffic.com
Live Traffic coverage 24/7 in Philadelphia. TV: over the air at 17.4, Channel 253 on Comcast and 468 on Fios.
Also streaming live on Mobile and Web, Social interaction via Facebook and Twitter.
It is a great resource for traffic information in Philadelphia.

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